The three gems of southern Thailand are strung out across the Andaman Sea. One, Phuket, is in holiday brochures; another was the setting for a James Bond film; and the third is a close approximation to paradise, just on the right side of being 'discovered'.
Phuket is the subject of ribald puns (though it is pronounced 'Poo-ket') and commercialism on a massive scale. Yet this spur-shaped island dangling from the heel of Thailand is big enough to absorb planeloads of tourists and the construction work which accompanies them.
The buildings, and building work, are concentrated on the west coast, especially along the fine bay of Patong. Yet it is easy to avoid the bars, which hardly bother to conceal their business as brokers of sex. Just head for the hills, which range all along this side of the island.
Climb the escarpment behind the beach, and you enter a realm of primary forest as inspiring as the shoreline is depressing. I hiked for half a day along the cliff tops, brushing up against the concrete realities of tourism only occasionally. Through thick scrub I crawled, communing with nature and being eaten alive by insects who could hardly believe their luck at such fresh European flesh. And then I got hopelessly lost.
Eventually I stumbled across a hut in the undergrowth and the owner obligingly took me back to air-conditioned security. He loaded me into the back of a songthaew (a pick-up truck with wooden seats along its length, which constitutes public transport in these parts) and swayed across the island to Phuket Town.
Phuket, I thought - I'm hungry. The great thing about dining out in Thailand is that you need neither a command of the language nor a menu in English. At Phuket's night market, simply stroll past stalls variously sizzling, steaming and smouldering fragments of animals. Vegetarians might feel gloomy here, but dinner-time for omnivores is an adventure.
KOH PHI PHI
The Man with a Golden Gun has a lot to answer for. You would be forgiven for imagining that the sort of tropical island paradise depicted in James Bond movies is a lot harder to reach than a 10-hour flight from London, a hop to Phuket and a mild boat ride across the placid sea. But Koh Phi Phi is one of the world's most accessible idyllic tropical islands. Like any decent desert island, it comprises brilliant white sandy beaches where every grain seems manufactured to a precise specification. These rise out of glitteringly clear water and merge into handsome hillsides, clad in aggressively verdant vegetation. Koh Phi Phi gets ticks in all the right boxes for an island paradise, and has the added advantage of being able to provide a decent pizza.
The travelling cognoscenti have discovered Koh Phi Phi. Bungalows where Westerners can relax for a night or a month have infiltrated the jungle along the shoreline. There are neither roads nor cars, but what passes for a high street is lined with travellers' temptations: Thai massage, pounds 2 an hour; American breakfasts just like Mom would make them (were she blessed with the munificence of the tropics and the Thais' delicacy of touch), a further pounds 2; and enterprises offering a reverse-charge call facility to allow you to irritate pals back home with news of what a wonderful time you are having, while making them pay for the privilege.
As well as idle luxury, Koh Phi Phi provides the answer to the question, 'Who put the bird's nest in bird's nest soup?' Hunters on the adjacent island of Phi Phi Lay capitalise on the fact that people are prepared to pay pounds 1,000 for a kilogram of twigs and swallows' saliva, vainly believing it to be an aphrodisiac. The world centre of bird's nest production is Phi Phi Lay, a monstrous molar of an island, jutting up angrily from the sea. It has a massive cavity, a cave the size of a cathedral, which sea swallows call home.
Their nests are easy prey to agile nest-collectors, who shin up 100ft-long bamboo poles to scrape them from the roof of the cavern. The removal of parasites, lice and swallow droppings from the nests is done in Koh Phi Phi. No one is yet selling bird's nest pizza.
By now, you have to agree that the Thai people are an agreeable bunch. Furthermore, they like a party. I sailed gently across to the mainland and joined one at a guest house in Krabi. This modest fishing port hosts a resident population of a few thousand, matched by an equal number of itinerant hedonists. Both sides were out in force, and in the battle of the bellowers (chanting renditions of British hits, ancient and modern) the locals crooned loudest and longest.
The day life matches the nightlife for exuberance. A ride in a longtail boat (so-called because the propellor is attached to a pole which acts as a rudder) sweeps you past rust-red cliffs stained with limestone and pitted with caves. They have fraught, distorted shapes that could only have been dreamt up by nature. The sea is absurdly, and translucently, turquoise. However, in the final flourish of a sun which is set upon streaking the sky with blood, the effect is uncomfortably like sailing into a mouthful of bad teeth.
The assassination of the day is slow, bloody and beautiful. The only thing which prevents the area from being the perfect tropical island is the fact that this rugged peninsula is still tenuously attached to the Thai mainland.
Visas: British travellers need no visa for stays of less than 15 days; any longer than that, and a visa must be obtained in advance from the Royal Thai Embassy, 29 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5JD (071-589 0173). A two-month visa costs pounds 8.
Getting there: Travellers benefit from a real buyer's market on flights to Bangkok. Non-stop services on British Airways, Qantas and Thai are expensive, but the Taiwanese carrier Eva Air has a fare of pounds 471 return for its non-stop flight from Gatwick, sold through The Travel Bug (061 721 4000). An add-on from Manchester is available for only pounds 22. Other carriers include Tarom (via Bucharest, pounds 378) and Gulf Air (via Abu Dhabi, pounds 422). Thai Airways (071-499 9113) operates hourly flights from Bangkok to Phuket for a one-way fare of pounds 52; business class is only pounds 13 more.
Further information: Tourist Authority of Thailand, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1 (071-499 7679).
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